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2. Form, Site, and Position of churches

Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER IX. Of Churches and Sacred Places

2. Form, Site, and Position of churches

  1. Form. The most ancient and approved form for churches was an oblong; sometimes with parallel sides, but more frequently elliptical, like the form of a ship. So the Apostolical Constitutions direct, lib. 2. c. 57, * (oblong). As it was common to speak of the christian community under the metaphor of a ship, so the edifice in which they worshipped was denominated navis, a ship, area, an ark, navis Noae, the ark of Noah, navicula Petri, the boat of Peter; having an allegorical reference to the perils to which the church was exposed, and its safety in God.

    Another favorite form for several ages after Constantine the Great was that of a cross*. Some were also quadrangular, octagonal, polygonal, and sometimes, though very rarely, circular; this was the usual form of heathen temples, and therefore was disapproved by Christians.

  2. Site. For the location of their churches the primitive Christians selected the summit of some high hill or elevated ground, unless compelled for the sake of concealment to resort to some place less conspicuous. At other times they erected their churches over the graves of martyrs and confessors. And not unfrequently for some special reason, they prepared for themselves churches and oratories under ground, which served both for devotional purposes, and as sepulchres for their dead. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, there were many such in Germany; these were denominated cryptae*.

    "During the sanguinary persecutions that assailed the primitive disciples, the myrmidons of imperial vengeance often broke in upon their worship, dispersed their assemblies, and violently dispossessed them of the "upper rooms," in which they were wont to congregate; and in these circumstances, while some fled to the mountains and some to the deserts, multitudes took permanent refuge in the spacious cemeteries that were situated in the outskirts of the ancient cities. Amid the deep and unbroken solitude of the catacombs – places of abode less irksome, perhaps, from the ancient style of building, than we are apt to imagine, – they solaced and animated one another from midnight till dawn, with spiritual exhortations to constancy in the faith; and while the sword of vengeance was sheathed, and the fury of their persecutors slumbered in the night, they continued, in those undiscovered retreats, their wonted exercises of prayer and praise. About forty-three of such subterranean excavations still remain in the neighborhood of Rome alone, containing the most convincing evidences that they were employed for the ordinances of religion, as well as for concealment; and when we consider that numbers died, and deposited their bones there, some of whom had eminently distinguished themselves as martyrs in the cause of Christ, it is not difficult to imagine the strong emotions that would animate the primitive Christians for the venerable dust that surrounded them, and the intense power which religion would acquire over their minds, in places which served at once for the offices of worship and for the burial of the saints." 

  3. Position, or aspect. In the aspect of their churches, the ancient Christians reversed the order of the Jews, placing the altar on the East, so that in facing towards the altar in their devotions they were turned to the East, in opposition to the Jewish custom of turning towards the West in prayer. As the Jews began their day with the setting sun, so the followers of Christ began theirs with the rising sun. The eye of the Christian turned with peculiar interest to the East, whence the day-spring from on high had visited him. There the morning star of his hope fixed his admiring gaze. Thence arose the Sun of righteousness with all his heavenly influences. Thither in prayer his soul turned with kindling emotions to the altar of his God. And even in his grave, thither still he directed his slumbering eye, in quiet expectation of awaking to behold in the same direction the second appearing of his Lord, when he shall come in the clouds of heaven to gather his saints. 

Tertull. De bapt. c. 8. c. 12: de Pudic. c. 13.

E. S.Cyprian, De ecelesia subierranea: Chr. Sonutag de ecclesiasubterran.

Cyril Hieros. mystag. Catech. 1. n.2: Grtgor. Naz. Orat. 40: Hieron. Comment, in Amos 6:14; Dionys. Areop. De Hierarch. Eccl. c. 3.
(No tag #3 appears in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)

Jamieson, pp. 106, 107.

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)


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